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Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design: El Lissitzky

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John Clifford, author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, profiles Russian designer El Lissitzky, whose work often combined elements on a strong diagonal axis, giving his designs a new, dynamic quality.
From the book

1890–1941 | born: Pochinok, Russia | education: Technische Hochschule, Polytechnic Institute of Riga

  • Influenced the design of books, exhibitions, and type
  • Pioneered the use of diagonal axes, asymmetry, white space, and bold sans serif type
  • Believed that visual communication could reach the uneducated masses and prompt social and political change

It’s not surprising that Russian designer El Lissitzky drew influence from the Suprematists early in his career; his work often combined elements on a strong diagonal axis, giving his designs a new, dynamic quality.

The Suprematist movement was born in Russia, the brainchild of painter Kasimir Malevich, who advocated for art built on abstract geometric shapes and flat colors. (The appropriately named Black Circle is one of Malevich’s works.) Followers of Suprematism believed art need not serve any function beyond its intrinsic, spiritual value. In 1921, Lissitzky was among a group of artists who broke away from the Suprematists to focus on practical design to aid Russia’s new communist state. These were the Constructivists.

Lissitzky believed that art and design could communicate in a nation where much of the population was illiterate. He aimed to establish a visual language using shape and color instead of letterforms; in his famous political poster Beat the Whites with the
Red Wedge, geometric shapes tell the story of the revolutionaries shattering the establishment.

Lissitzky’s design work had several distinguishing characteristics—layouts structured on a grid, limited color palettes, tense diagonals, sans serif type, and repetition of pure geometric forms. He experimented with photomontage, a method of layering and superimposing multiple images. To him, sequencing the pages of a book felt like cinema. The way he organized space gave words a new energetic power.

Figure 1 Letterhead, 1926

Figure 2 Cover for Veshch magazine, 1922

Figure 3 Pages from For the Voice, poetry book by Vladimir Mayakovski, 1923

His diverse talents in painting, architecture, typography, and design allowed him to connect movements like Constructivism,
De Stijl, Dada, and the Bauhaus. That integration produced layouts that not only engaged the eye, but also clarified and emphasized
the content. Although he suffered from tuberculosis, he rarely slowed down. Teaching, writing, traveling, and working for publications like Veshch-Objet-Gegenstand, along with his friendly demeanor, helped spread his ideas around the world.

Figure 4 “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” poster, 1919

Figure 5 Cover of Arckhitektura (Architecture), 1927

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